One of the great things about the 1990’s was the decline in poverty. Even with much of the income gains going to the wealthiest Americans, economic progress, better education, improved social safety nets and the like produced a decline in the rate and number of Americans living below the poverty level.
In 2001 Americans put Republicans in charge and their tax and spend policy started to reverse this trend. In 2009 Mr. Obama took over, and while he may have wanted to help the less fortunate, he went back on a campaign pledge and allowed the Bush era tax cuts to be extended until at least the end of this year. His stimulus package was composed of somewhat ineffective programs that produce a temporary boost to the economy, but nothing he has done in office has really moved the country towards less rather than more poverty.
Now reports are coming that when poverty rates are released this fall the expectation is that the level of poverty will rise to levels not seen since 1965.
The Associated Press surveyed more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus: The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent. Several predicted a more modest gain, but even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965.
The outlook for the future, not so bright.
In an election year dominated by discussion of the middle class, Fritz's case highlights a dim reality for the growing group in poverty. Millions could fall through the cracks as government aid from unemployment insurance, Medicaid, welfare and food stamps diminishes.
Conservatives of course say there is already plenty of help for the poor and they worry that higher poverty statistics, particularly among the elderly and among children will just lead to higher government spending on the poor, rather than tax cuts for the wealthy.
An additional 9 million people in 2010 would have been counted above the poverty line if food stamps and tax credits were taken into account.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, believes the social safety net has worked and it is now time to cut back. He worries that advocates may use a rising poverty rate to justify additional spending on the poor, when in fact, he says, many live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.
Of course, Mr. Rector doesn’t know Laura Fritz, and if he did he would probably envy her wonderful life.
"I grew up going to
every summer. Now I'm here, applying for assistance because it's hard to make
ends meet. It's very hard to adjust," said Laura Fritz, 27, of Wheat Ridge, Colo., describing
her slide from rich to poor as she filled out aid forms at a county center.
Since 2000, large swaths of Jefferson County just
have seen poverty nearly double. Denver
Fritz says she grew up wealthy in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, but fortunes turned after her parents lost a significant amount of money in the housing bust. Stuck in a half-million dollar house, her parents began living off food stamps and Fritz's college money evaporated. She tried joining the Army but was injured during basic training.
Now she's living on disability, with an infant daughter and a boyfriend, Garrett Goudeseune, 25, who can't find work as a landscaper. They are struggling to pay their $650 rent on his unemployment checks and don't know how they would get by without the extra help as they hope for the job market to improve.
Even if Mr. Obama is re-elected there is nothing in his programs to address this problem, and no way to get any programs through the Congress even if he did have them. If Mr. Romney is elected a complete Republican control of government will move to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy by gutting social programs.
So maybe the current statistics are not bad. Maybe everyone will look back on 2012 and poverty and muse about how good things were compared to how they become after four more years of pro-poverty legislation.